Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Through the use of the conventions of melodrama and slave narrative, Brown presents the characters of Currer, Clotel, and Althesa as bound by the restrictions of slavery, particularly its effects on family relationships and the bond between mother and child. Currer is portrayed as a mother whose main objective is the safety of her children. Both Clotel and Althesa are drawn as tragic mulattoes, both of whom are depicted in love relationships with white males. Clotel’s attachment to Horatio is emphasized by her depression following his marriage to a white woman. Clotel is a mirror of her mother’s commitment to the maternal connection; Clotel is also motivated by the need to reunite with her own daughter. Althesa is characterized as a concubine legitimized to a degree by marriage. Like her sister, Althesa also bears children as a result of her relationship with a white male. Ironically, her status in marriage does not provide free status for her daughters, because Althesa’s freedom had not been purchased prior to her marriage.

Both Althesa and Clotel serve as representations of the tragic mulatto. Clotel is rejected and separated from her daughter; Althesa experiences married life and a more enduring connection to her daughters, Ellen and Jane. Ellen and Jane, who are presented as the granddaughters of Thomas Jefferson, show the continued exploitation of the mulatto female and the fear of sexual exploitation through concubinage.

Brown also develops certain white characters, representatives of the slaveholding class. In particular, the relationship between Reverend Peck and Georgiana, his daughter, is used to express differing views of slavery. The proslavery arguments of Peck are in direct contrast to the abolitionist views of his daughter. Peck becomes symbolic of the hypocrisy of slaveholding Christians. The portrayal of Horatio Green, Clotel’s lover, suggests the tenuousness of interracial relationships involving mulatto females and white males. The portrayal of Gertrude, Horatio’s white wife, also suggests the jealousy and resentment of white mistresses toward African American females who were potential rivals.

Brown also presents a number of African American male characters within the slave system. Sam, the bond servant of...

(The entire section is 927 words.)